The Art of the 48 Hour Game

The idea isn’t new, a few people get together one weekend with a common goal; make a game in 48 hours. I have game jams on the mind because the Global Game Jam is this weekend. So I thought I might do a post on hosting and participating in a successful Jam.

I’ve been party to five game jams over the last few years and I’ve made some observations of what works really well and what doesn’t.

1) The Organizer

Every Jam needs an organizer, the guy who aligns everyone and makes sure there’s a Jam Site and that that everything is ready to go long before anyone else shows up. There’s a fair amount of work that goes into a Jam, especially if you require internet access. A lot of businesses that might like or be open to hosting it tend to nix it because of the work, risk or liability issues. Depending on the size of the Jam, the organizer also needs to recruit helpers. People that have experience with Jams and can help people out that are new to the experience and possibly to the technology primarily being used in the Jam. Also, don’t forget to setup a source control server for your participants. Otherwise how will they collaborate?

2) Pick a Framework

We tend to use XNA for our Game Jams. While I’m sure you could use UDK or Unity3D for a Game Jam, those frameworks have a much higher barrier to entry. If you are unfamiliar with the technology, you’ll spend a lot of time chasing down tutorials and you just don’t have that kind of time in a jam. Doing an XNA game in a weekend for someone who has never touched XNA is far more achievable. But you should ask your participants, heck, I almost want to host a Jam focused around Little Big Planet 2.

3) The Schedule

Typically a Jam runs Friday to Sunday. Starting on Friday around 5-6 o’clock and ending at approximately the same time on Sunday to do presentations. We’ve found that the first night is usually not the time to start burning the candle at both ends; most people are already tired from work. You should recommend to the jammers to get into groups, talk about the game, go get some food and then do a little work on it. Go home and get plenty of rest and come in Saturday bright and early and ready to write a ton of code for 12+ hours.

4) Simple and Creative Theme

Your theme should be creative and simple. Something that allows for a lot of creativity but doesn’t completely open the players up to making whatever game they want. The global game jam themes tend to actually be my least favorite. The group organizing it tends to pick themes that are very vague, and actually a little hard to turn into concrete ideas for games. For example, last year’s theme was “Deception – and you had to incorporate a net, a set or a pet”. The year before that it was “As long as we have each other, we’ll never run out of problems”. Personally, I find these kinds of themes a little annoying because they tend to turn into a challenge of “how do I morph my game idea into this vague theme”, which I don’t think is what you want.

You should really try and give your jammers something concrete to build from. For example, the local jam we do in Raleigh, NC has had themes like “Triangles” and “Blocks”. My personal favorite was Madlibs. Everyone comes to the jam with 5 nouns, 5 adjectives and 5 verbs. We then entered them into a simple website which randomized everyone’s words into game titles in the form of “Adjective Noun Verb”. So you might see game titles like “Meaty Nun Flyer”, “Musical Dragon Twirler” and “Pixelated Martini Roller” just to name a very small number of the ones generated. I like this method a lot because a title like “Meaty Nun Flyer” is evocative, immediately conjuring up possible game mechanics and a mental image. Something I find very important when I’m trying to crank out a game in 48 hours.

5) The Grouping

After the theme has been announced you should give everyone 15 minutes or so to come up with an elevator pitch for their game. If you are doing something like madlibs you skip this step. Then have each person with an idea stand up and pitch it. Have someone write down the title and a 3 word description. After everyone finishes, now comes the least fun part, the puppy killing phase. You need to reduce the number of game ideas to the ones people actually want to work on.

We tend to do this by first getting a general consensus of what people would even be interested in working on. So just go down each game title, remind them what it was and then have them raise their hand if they would want to work on it. People can vote multiple times in this phase. You should cut anything from the running that doesn’t at least have 3-4 people even interested in it (numbers vary based on the size of the jam).

After you’ve narrowed the list you should have the final grouping phase. Start by going down the titles left and asking people to vote once. Ask them to pick the title they want to work on, even if no one else wanted to work on it. People can skip this phase if they are unsure. This will give you the list of games that are going to be made. From here, anyone left undecided can just join the group they are most interested in.

6) Forget

Forget everything you ever learned about software engineering. It’s actually nice to remove yourself from the mindset of someone writing production code 50+ hours a week. Copy paste code, make everything public. I mean you’ve got 48 hours; it’s really not the time to worry about overhead, performance or maintenance.  Always take the quick and dirty path to getting the game done, you simply don’t have time to constantly refactor systems during this process.

7) Gameplay First

Get the mechanics and controls of the game working before anything else. You need to try and aim for getting the game done by Sunday at noon and leaving the next 4-5 hours to do the random bits like improve graphics (maybe add a neat shader effect) and add a title screen, all of the polish items basically. It also means you’ll be having fun on the last day instead of stressing over your game only being half done.

8) The End

Just some final thoughts I have on the subject. If you’re a student you should come to game jams. Industry folks do participate and it’s a good way to make contacts.  If not, at the very least you’ll have something cool to show a potential employer. If you’re already in the game industry, you should participate in game jams. The experience can be very invigorating to return to a simpler time when games or projects don’t stretch on for several months or years. It’s nice to be able to sit back and feel like you’ve accomplished something that is a whole instead of merely a part in such a short time.